A successful Laughter in the Law Luncheon
On March 8, the Illinois State Bar Association’s Women and the Law Committee hosted its annual luncheon, ‘Laughter in the Law,’ at Maggiano’s in downtown Chicago. Introductions were done by ISBA President Alberto Davi and Women and the Law Section President Emily Masalski. Over 70 people attended to hear Dr. Gail Stern, co-founder of Catharsis Productions, make us laugh about some very not funny topics. She specializes in training for colleges, corporations, and the military in sexual assault awareness and prevention. She started out as a stand-up comedian with a passion for civil rights and then became the Senior Project Coordinator of the Campus Advocacy Network at the University of Illinois at Chicago. As she pointed out, the network was initially for hate crimes but professors kept sending survivors of sexual assault and domestic violence to her. There wasn’t a program set up to help them at the University and they had nowhere else to go. She created the second oldest campus-based rape victim advocacy program in the United States which provided crisis counseling and court advocacy to victims of rape, domestic violence, stalking and hate crime. Once gender was added to the Illinois Human Rights Law, she says she became a feminist. It was clear that this area needed a lot of work.
She uses humor to break through boundaries in order to teach awareness of societal norms and prevention of sexual violence and assault. She “builds bridges through comedy” to train people how to act properly and in a non-biased way. One of the examples she gave during her talk was how women act when getting to their car. She was trying to explain to a man at a training seminar how women are forced to constantly evaluate their surroundings. Every woman is conscious of parking in a well- lit area close to the doors, checking around and under the car, and even using our “x-ray vision” to see if someone is hiding in the car. She pointed out that men do not have to worry about their safety in this way. And of course she needs to be wearing the right clothing, have the right attitude, and do the right things to avoid sexual assault. Her point being, of course, that women cannot avoid sexual assault even by doing all of these “right” things. And that women shouldn’t have to be aware of all of these things to be safe.
The conversation that used to revolve around power and control is now much more faceted. She is a proponent of the ‘sexual Hippocratic oath’ meaning that both parties should agree to do no harm to each other. When you’re planning to eat dinner with someone, what are the questions you ask? What kinds of food do they like, do they have any allergies, what neighborhood do they prefer? Going out to eat should be enjoyable for both parties. And so should any sexual activity. Consent is an important factor to any activity and it’s not hard to keep checking in to make sure both people are having a good time.
Anyone who trains law enforcement and the military in cultural sensitivity and hate and sex crime victim support needs a good sense of humor, especially in Chicago. She made us think and laugh about issues that aren’t funny. As Maxine Weiss-Kunz of Weiss-Kunz & Oliver, LLC said after her talk, “this is genuinely the funniest luncheon I’ve ever been to.”